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The Hullabaloo Over China’s Drone Advances In The South China Sea – Analysis

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Analysts and the international media have been blaring warnings regarding the threat of China’s drone advances to the US Navy in the South China Sea.  The proximate cause of this fuss is China’s Ministry of Natural Resources announcement that it has deployed a network of unmanned drones to monitor activities relating to China’s claimed natural resources. According to Liu Zhen writing in the South China Morning Post. “The drone network is China’s latest assertion of its authority over the region _ _ _”.https://www.scmp.com/news/china/military/article/3026577/beijing-deploys-drones-south-china-sea-surveillancehttps://www.maritime-executive.com/article/china-to-deploy-surveillance-drones-in-south-china-seahttps://nationalinterest.org/blog/buzz/chinas-enormous-spy-drone-has-its-eyes-set-us-navy-78546 

Peter Dutton of the US Naval War College and Greg Poling of the Washington D.C.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Asian Maritime Transparency Initiative jumped on the bandwagon. Dutton argued that it was a prelude to declaring an Air Defense Identification Zone in the South China Sea. https://twitter.com/peter_dutton/status/1171820112682332160  What is all this hullabaloo about?

The specific drones that spurred this current ruckus are unarmed and for civilian purposes. Of course the information they gather can be used for military applications but this would be a rather inefficient way to compete militarily with the U.S. given that China is rapidly developing its own military drones. I suppose one could say the same about US research devices including drones operating in and over the South China Sea.

China is becoming one of the global leaders in the development of new unmanned systems. https://chinapower.csis.org/china-drones-unmanned-technology/  China’s 2015 Defense White Paper proclaimed that its “[l]ong-range, precise, smart, stealthy and unmanned weapons and equipment are becoming increasingly sophisticated.”  China’s advances are most evident in Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), but it is also accelerating its development of Unmanned Undersea Vehicles (UUVs) and Unmanned Surface Vehicles (USVs).  This effort is focused on control of its ‘near seas’ that it considers critical to its defense and security and which are at present dominated by US intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) platforms—both manned and unmanned.

UAVs could “improve China’s ability to locate enemy targets at greater distances”, https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/research_reports/RR900/RR990/RAND_RR990.pdf and “UAVs will increasingly become [the] ‘tip of the spear’ in modern conflict.”  Such systems may even give the People’s Liberation Army the means to overcome the US domination of outer space in relation to warfare and communication with drones.

China is also developing a new family of UUVs.  Their physical shape and qualities may cause enemy sensors to interpret them as fish and they are thus expected to have extraordinary survivability on the battlefield. https://www.relcleardefense.com/2018/7/16/hn-1_china039s_new_ai-powered_underwater_drone_303180.html  They could be particularly useful for anti-submarine warfare, mapping enemy minefields, and penetrating enemy ports and naval bases. 

But this is all in the future—and there may be ‘many a slip twixt the cup and the lip’. Moreover, U.S. drone technology development including defenses against others’ drones is certainly not static. A recent example of the drone technology gap between China and the U.S. was revealed in another article also by Liu Zhen in the South China Morning Post entitled “China unveils supersonic spy drone during National Day military parade rehearsal”. https://www.scmp.com/news/china/military/article/3027534/china-unveils-supersonic-spy-drone-during-national-day-military According to the Washington Times, this drone can be used for targeting and for guiding missiles including its anti-ship ballistic missile. https://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2019/sep/18/chinas-supersonic-dr-8-done-revealed/ But it appears to be a knockoff of a US model retired more than 45 years ago. The U.S. had deployed such drones to spy over China and several crashed perhaps giving China an opportunity to reverse engineer the model. Drones revealed at the 2018 Zuhai Air Show also appear to be copies of US drones.

Andrea and Mauro Gilli have directly addressed the question of the China-US UAV technology gap. https://warontherocks.com/2018/11/is-china-ahead-of-america-in-next-generation-unmanned-aircraft/ They conclude that it is “rather unlikely” that China has closed the gap. They state that “modern weapons systems require years of research and development” and “the margin for error has _ _ become even smaller”. “Imitating advanced weapon systems is much more difficult than generally accepted by international relations scholars and practitioners”. Moreover, drones operate with support networks and  “the performance of a

[drone]

network depends _ _ strictly on the performance of the weakest node”.

So the pundits, as well as practitioners in the U.S. and its allies like Japan, are likely overreacting. When China announced it intended to deploy drones in the East China Sea, then Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera announced that Japan would “consider shooting it down.” jQmNVKj3g   Soon after, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe approved a plan for the Japan Self-Defense Forces to “engage drones intruding into the country’s airspace.”  In response to Abe’s remarks, China also overreacted by warning that shooting down its UAV would constitute an “act of war”.  https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-25050493  Such mutual overreaction is dangerous.

Analysts and policy makers hyping the China drone threat need to get a grip. There is a huge asymmetry in favor of the U.S. in drone control and use of air space and seas.    This is especially so regarding the capability of US drone ISR in China’s near shore waters. China has little capability to do the same to the U.S. in its near shore waters. Indeed, the reality is no other country can match the U.S.’s array of aerial, surface and subsurface maritime drones, particularly their range and advanced weapons and sensors, coupled with the necessary satellite and telecommunications support systems.  Indeed, China’s advances are no threat to U.S. superiority in this area – in general, and in the South China Sea in particular.

More than three years ago, then US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter announced from the deck of a US warship sailing in the South China Sea that the U.S. was deploying “new undersea drones in multiples sizes and diverse payloads that can, importantly, operate in shallow water where manned submersibles cannot.”  https://www.cnbc.com/2016/04/18/us-to-sail-submarine-drones-in-south-china-sea.html Moreover, due to the drawdown in Afghanistan and the U.S. ‘pivot’ the Navy is releasing ISR assets for use in Asia.  His successor Admiral Jonathan Greenert said simply that the undersea drones will enable the U.S. to retain “our edge” in that environment.    Then U.S. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Gary Roughhead predicted that “unmanned underwater systems will become extensions to the submarines, can become extensions to aviation, manned or unmanned, as far as sensing the battle space”.

 “But he also warned that [the pursuit of unmanned systems is] also going to be important politically, because I believe the future will be one where the sensitivities of sovereignty, a nation’s claim to control its own land, to be able to focus on that which is there, that the idea of large footprints ashore, improved facilities ashore, may not always be guaranteed as we have become used to over these past years”. 

Indeed, as the “drone wars” begin and expand, uses by both China and the U.S. will outstrip existing international law and ‘rules’. This is where the concern should be focused—there, and on trying to develop agreed restraints on their use—not on disingenuous finger pointing at China for trying to catch up to the U.S.



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Mark J. Valencia

Mark J. Valencia

Mark J. Valencia, is an internationally known maritime policy analyst, political commentator and consultant focused on Asia. He is the author or editor of some 15 books and more than 100 peer-reviewed journal articles and Adjunct Senior Scholar, National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China

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